March 12, 2006

America the Peasant Society

I've been reading Elizabeth A. Johnson's historical-theological approach to the Virgin Mary, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. I just finished reading her description of the social, economic, and religious circumstances of Mary's time, and this is what Johnson has to say about Mary's peasant society on pages 145-146 of her book:

The ruler was really in a class by himself, with proprietary rights to property, water, and crops throughout his domain. The governing class, comprised of the nobility and members of court as well as lesser officials, surrounded the ruler's administration with an ambience of power and glory. Although comprising about one percent of the population, these two top classes were awash in the wealth of the national income: "the governing class and ruler together usually received not less than half." The retainer class was made up of scribes and bureaucrats as well as military personnel, about 5 percent of the population; they supported and defended the ruler and governing class, making their very existence possible. The wealthy merchant class and the priestly class rounded out the ranks of the privileged, allied as they were with the governing class. Overall the upper class comprised about 10 percent of the population. Most often they lived in urban communities.

On the other side of the chasm was the peasant class, numerically the largest group of all. Peasants were the fundamental engine of production, working the land, either their own little plot or the estates of wealthy landowners. "The burden of supporting the state and the privileged classes fell on the shoulders of the common people, and especially on the peasant farmers who constituted the majority of the population; . . . the great majority of the political elite sought to use the energies of the peasantry to the full, while depriving them of all but the basic necessities of life." Even these necessities could be sacrificed.

At the time, although I could draw parallels between what was going on in rural Galilee under the rule of the Roman Empire and the Herodian Dynasty and what's going on in America under the rule of the Republicans and Democrats, I didn't think we were on our way to becoming a peasant society. I didn't think so, that is, until I read a post from Beppeblog that I had saved some time ago with statistics about poverty in America. I was stunned to discover that the wealthiest one percent of the population controls 32.7% (or about one third) of the net worth in the United States, while many of the most vulnerable Americans are even deprived of the basic necessities of life. We are indeed on our way to becoming a peasant society. No, we're not a society based on agricultural peasantry; this has been replaced by industrial peasantry. Our society is remarkably similar to the one condemned by Jesus and his mother for its treatment of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Catholics have always been inspired by Mary, but somehow her longest and most powerful statement in scripture has been pushed to the sidelines. It's time for us to reclaim the Magnificat, with the realization that it is not just a statement that applies to Mary's time; it applies directly to our own. Our society is well on its way toward becoming the kind of society that Mary spoke so critically of, the kind of society that she and so many others looked forward to filling with God's liberating presence. We must not wait for God to disperse "the arrogant of mind and heart" or to throw down "the rulers from their thrones" and lift up the lowly; as the Mystical Body of Christ, we must realize that God is calling us to do this in his name. We are charged with being God's liberating presence in the world.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1:45-55).